Whale Scientists Story – Erica Wirth

Erica Wirth is a 26-year-old American naturalist and captain working in California. She also is the founder of a successful podcast, Breaching Extinction. Here is her story.

Erica earned a dual degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology

I attended Eckerd College, earning a dual degree in 3.5 years. Eckerd was my dream college, and I was fortunate enough to receive the funding to make my attendance possible. I choose Eckerd because of the small class sizes, unique research opportunities, and interdisciplinary approach. I chose Environmental Studies at the time. After all, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work with Marine or Terrestrial animals. I also chose psychology because I was interested in human and animal behaviors. Sometimes I find my psych degree more helpful than the environmental degree when trying to understand environmental issues.

Two killer whales in California — Credit: Erica Wirth

What is Erica up to today?

I currently have two jobs as a naturalist and captain. I work as a naturalist, which is essentially a boat-based environmental educator for Sanctuary Cruises out of Moss Landing. There I focus on educating passengers about wildlife in the area, primarily focusing on whales. I also work as a captain for the Elkhorn Slough Safari boat, also base out of Moss Landing, there my job is more focused on driving the boat, though there are some elements of environmental education.

I love being on the water all day and being directly in contact with wildlife, I also get to meet many different people giving me the unique opportunity to network and expose all kinds of people to wildlife. I am so lucky to be on the water daily, so I have many stories. I think one of my favorites, though, was watching humpback whales place a sea lion on their back while trumpeting and swatting their pectoral fins, trying to keep a family of transient orcas from eating it.

In the next few years, my goal is to have my own whale watch company that is electric, carbon neutral, and impact-focused. I would like to change my industry and lead in a greener way by doing ecotourism.

A humpback whale gulping prey — Credit: Erica Wirth

Did you do any internships that prepared you for your current job?

I also got my start at the age of 14, volunteering and the Columbus Zoo, which led me to become an Arctic Ambassador for them and Polar Bears International. Then, I participated in four research projects and two internships while in college. Many of these internships were through the college, so I was encouraged by the faculty to apply. Most of the programs I did were a word of mouth, except for my participation in the SFS program; I found that one online.

A group of feeding humpback whales — Credit: Erica Wirth

From May 2017 to December 2018, I volunteered for the Eckerd College Dolphin Project. Some of my tasks included collections of auditory, behavioral, and photographic data to identify and study the resident bottlenose dolphin population in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In early 2018, I did an internship in the Mote Marine Laboratory. I collected and analyzed data evaluating the bottlenose dolphin behavior through focal follows and field surveys. I also did some photo ID work and helped organize and store decades’ worth of previous data in the Finbase computer software. In late 2018, I interned at the Saguaro National Park, in Arizona. I collected and entered data on various plant and animal species in the park. We also established areas to place camera traps for jackrabbit study. Some of my duties included mentoring and training students on scientific protocols and data collection.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Typically I wake up around 5:30, get ready, and head to moss landing. Depending on the job I am doing that day, I will clean the boat, check in passengers, and load them on the boat. Then I will head either on to the bay or into the slough, where I educate people about wildlife. We will typically run at least two trips a day, so I will have to come back and repeat prep and loading. The best part, of course, is showing people wildlife and helping them develop a meaningful connection.

A humpback whale tail slapping — Credit: Erica Wirth

Do you have any tips for aspiring naturalists?

If you want to work in this field, keep trying you can do it! Do not listen to people who say that you can’t or that this isn’t a real career. The world needs more biologists and educators. If you stick with it, you will make it even it takes a while!

Tell us about Breaching Extinction

Breaching Extinction is a podcast I started in 2019 after completing a season as a Natulaist on Orcas island. I was interested in and moved by the plight of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs). This was originally supposed to be a shoer 12-part series, but as I got into I realized how complex the situation was and continued to cover topics related to the SRKWs for two years. The podcast has since expanded to talk about other cetaceans and endangered species. I posted weekly episodes interviewing people from various backgrounds but focusing mostly on science. I actually interviewed both Anaïs and Naomi, the founders of Whale Scientists. You can find the podcast episode for Naomi here and the one for Anaïs here.

Thank you so much, Erica, for sharing your experiences with us. If you want to get in touch with Erica, please reach out to her on her personal Instagram or through the breaching extinction Instagram.

Did you enjoy this story? Make sure to check our other stories here:

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